Private sector approach to greener cities ‘incoherent’

The private sector should not use big data to marginally improve city infrastructure but rather design and redesign cities to be sustainable in the first place.

That is the argument put forward today by Emma Stewart, the head of sustainability solutions at Autodesk, a multinational software corporation.

Writing in a report released by AkzoNobel called Tomorrow’s Cities, Stewart claimed that the current smart city concept is “incoherent” and the private sector’s response to rapidly expanding cities has been “worryingly reductive”.

“Existing products are rebranded as ‘smart city’ offerings and experts opine breathlessly about the promise of sensors, “big data”, and an all-seeing Internet,” she said.

“In reality, the most powerful and cost-effective use of modern technology is not collecting big data once things are built, so as to enable marginal improvements, but rather generating, simulating, and analysing ideas relating to the design, or redesign, of city assets.

“This application is a more cost-effective and powerful way to achieve the outcomes that cities seek–not to be “smart”, but rather to be liveable and sustainable.”

In the report – funded by Dutch paint manufacturer AkzoNobel in collaboration with the Economist Intelligence Unit – Stewart creates a S.M.A.R.T acronym as a guideline to help the private sector and city officials respond to modern urban challenges.

S: Sets science-based targets: Climate science suggests that 80%+ reduction targets are necessary to stabilise climate change by 2050, and cities such as Palo Alto in California have begun to calculate their economically-adjusted fair share of those global reductions. The UK as a whole has also commited to such a target.

M: Makes the comprehensive business case: Until recently, making the case for investments in urban infrastructure projects involved relatively simple calculations: What is the predicted capital cost of the project, plus basic annual operating costs?

But the dearth of national government funding for infrastructure is driving project sponsors towards a different set of financiers – banks, pension funds, and infrastructure exchanges – and there they encounter a more nuanced set of questions, such as: which stakeholder group will benefit most from this project? What is the net environmental benefit now and in 50 years? How have you mitigated against the risk of natural disaster?

Marc Weisdorf, head of JP Morgan Asset Management, representing 110 global institutional investors and US$1.6trn in assets, summed it up by declaring, “We will not invest in any infrastructure project that does not include long-term triple-bottom-line analysis (meaning financial, social and environmental) from early planning through to operations.”

A: Absorbs water: Whether coastal or inland, cities need to act more like mangroves and less like car parks. The current buzzwords for city officials from Philadelphia to Singapore are “green stormwater infrastructure“, which has the dual benefit of absorbing and filtering rainfall while cleaning the air, enhancing property values, and providing open space.

R: Retrofits energy hogs: Even where national directives do not yet exist, cities such as New York and Washington, DC, are creating their own mandates to squeeze unnecessary waste out of their built environment. Yet until recently they have relied on age-old techniques such as costly on-site audits. Now, something as simple as a camera, tablet computer or aerial image can be used to evaluate the building’s likely energy use and potential for upgrade, thereby empowering cities better to target their limited resources.

T: Transports people, not cars: Cars have significantly improved living conditions, but car-oriented development is harmful. The opportunity lies in redesigning existing streetscapes to transport people and goods in ways that are good for our cities and our health: rail, bus, bicycle and foot.

Brad Allen

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